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Aristotle's Poetics on the Plot of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

Updated on March 26, 2013

Plotting Dr. Faustus According to Aristotle's Poetics

Aristotle’s Poetics offers a very comprehensive commentary on the plot of dramatic tragedies and his insights are applicable to Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy Dr. Fausus, which came about 1934 years after Aristotle’s work. According to Aristotle, Dr. Faustus may conform to the basic necessities of a well-constructed plot, but it does not measure up to the more complextrajectory typically followed by a tragedy.

Dr. Faustus follows Aristotle’s notion of beginning, middle, and end perfectly. He says that the beginning should not follow from anything of consequence, that the end should not leave anything of consequence to follow it, and that the middle should both leave behind and follow something of consequence (Aristotle 14). In the play, we are first given a brief account of Faustus’ life up to the beginning of the play, where he is sitting in his study, just about to review his life’s work and then decide where to go from there, eventually deciding to pursue the practice of necromancy (1-5). In the end of the play, Faustus is dragged off to hell by a procession of devils (56). Both the beginning and the end have a definite introduction (it does not open in medias res), and conclusion (at the end, Faustus is no more), respectively. Furthermore, the play falls approximately in the length spectrum that Aristotle deems most suitable for a tragedy. However, these basic elements are as far as the plot Dr. Faustus stands in agreement with Aristotle’s philosophy thereof.

According to Aristotle, “a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole” (16). Essentially, everything that appears in a play must be particularly significant. However, Dr. Faustus would certainly lose nothing of its organic unity should any given instance of Faustus’ shenanigans in the middle of the play be omitted. Even though the bit where Faustus pranks the Pope (33-34) serves as a nod to disdain for Catholicism, it is still essentially irrelevant to the main plot of the play, which is what Aristotle is most concerned with.

While Aristotle theoretically asserts that Marlowe is no less a poet for basing his play in history, the way he goes about telling the Faust legend does not meet Aristotle’s dramatic standards. Although Faustus’ ultimate demise is the result of cause and effect (selling his soul to the Devil, and then having his soul claimed by the Devil), it does not come as a surprise, which is required for inspiring fear or pity in the audience (Aristotle 18-19). Furthermore, Faustus’ downfall exemplifies Aristotle’s notion of a Simple Plot, as opposed to the preferred Complex Plot (19). The plot of Dr. Faustus is very simple: Faustus makes the informed decision to practice necromancy, he signs his soul over the Devil thereby, and his soul is then claimed according to the conditions of the contract. There is no sudden revelation of reversal of situation that disrupts this process, producing none of the irony that Aristotle requires of dramatic tragedy.

Thus, Dr. Faustus may exemplify the basic structure that Aristotle outlines as a good tragic plot, but the play fails to live up to Aristotle’s more complex notions of what makes a great tragedy.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Mineola: Dover, 1997. Print.

Marlowe, Christopher. Dr. Faustus. New York: Dover, 1994. Print.

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